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Joe's Neighborhood

Home for the holidays

12/3/2014

The fast train from Madrid, Spain, to Avignon, France, departing Monday afternoon. Train 9724, Car 1. Seats 71 and 76.

Shoulder to shoulder, the men stood. Hundreds of men. Singing, yelling, chanting. Deafening. Frightening. Empowering. Solidifying. Their roar began in the highest seats of the stadium, floated across the mass of men in the middle, then descended until it washed out across the playing field. It was immediately followed by another roar, and another, and another. Until they all stood with one voice. One sound. One gigantic family with hands raised. Home.

joes1“Most of the people use the word ‘hooligan,’ ” said the young man who preferred not to be named. “My opinion is that it is a stupid word. When you translate it, most of the time you say they damage things. But I never damaged things. And never will do that. I never call myself a hooligan. I’m a fanatic fan.”

Window seats on the high-speed train from Avignon to Brussels departing on Tuesday morning. Train 9860. Car 3. Seats 15 and 16.

The young man is my guide for the evening. He is smart, stylishly dressed, employed in a good job, pays his bills and shows up for work five days a week. And some days, like this week, works seven days in a row.

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“I am hardcore,” he said. “I love the game of soccer. I love the club. And I love the people around me.”

My guide looks at me intently, hoping I hear his emotion.

He has been a fan of ADO Den Haag since a boy. ADO Den Haag is the professional soccer team in The Hague, the Netherlands. Some fans have a reputation from years past of participating in a violent form of hooliganism. Assaults, destruction of property, riots, arson. Not a good history.

“I would never do that,” my guide said. “That was the past.”

Tuesday evening, the intercity train from Brussels to The Hague, Netherlands. Train 1242. Platform 18. Any available seats.

My guide took me to a club get-together at a local bar before the match. Club members came and shook my hand, patted me on the back, bought me drinks. Smiles, laughter, jostling. The boisterousness soon sent a mass of them out the front door and onto the street. An edge of excitement. An edge of out-of-control.

joes2“Sometimes my love was so big for the club, there was not a lot of money, so we collected bottles to travel to games,” he said. “The old members watched our backs. They told us when we were stupid. We all have the same love, the same loyalty, the same hobby. I have a very big group of friends.”

Tram 17 in The Hague. Second car for people with luggage. Standing room only. Tuesday night.

My guide is respected. When he walks into the room, people approach, want to talk to him, press his flesh. When he passes through the crowd, people move to the side. A quiet earned authority.

And the fighting that we hear about?

“I work. Friends of mine work,” he said. “Sometimes we fight. We fight in the stadium or the city. This is our hobby. Most people say this is strange. What I say is strange is when you go out to another man’s garden and take the laundry for underwear. That’s strange. People like to see boxing. OK, then when I fight with somebody who also wants to fight, then what’s the problem?”

Are there rules?

“I don’t take part in a fight where the enemy does not want to fight with us,” he said. “They are afraid we will use weapons. In the early days, it was common that people used knives or other weapons. But personally I never used a weapon. Ah, once, it was for my own protection — a broom stick. At a tournament in Amsterdam. We were 20 and around 70 people attacked us. I’m not a he-man. I must protect my friends. I’m not a fool.

“Most of the time there is no fight,” he continued. “Well, with the police maybe. But then you will be arrested and go to jail. I’ve never been to jail. Ah, for six hours, but not more.”

joes1Amsterdam Schipol Airport to Minneapolis. Delta Flight 0163, seats 12B and 12C, departing at 3 p.m., Wednesday.

After the match, my guide took me to meet the players in a special room and then to the clubhouse. I was given beer and food and introduced to players, managers, trainers, and club members. All smiled. All answered my questions. All were polite, friendly and welcoming. A solid group. A group with whom you feel safe.

My young guide leaned into me: “This is my family. This is a great part of my life. This is home.”

Minneapolis to Des Moines. Delta Flight 3351, seats 8D and 8C. Departing Wednesday night. For Des Moines.

Home for the holidays. CV

Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. He is now retired and spent the past several months with his wife, who was assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands. View his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com or email josephpweeg@gmail.com.

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